A Quick Look at the History of Physiotherapy

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Physiotherapy, also known variously as physical therapy or kinesiotherapy, is a medical practice concerned with restoring or enhancing physical strength, mobility, and general functionality in patients debilitated by illness, injury, or disability. The practice of physiotherapy is distinguished from other medical procedures by its utilisation of physical treatments such as massage, heat and electrical therapy, exercises, and the like. 

Physiotherapy is currently the third most commonly practised healthcare specialization in the world. As a discipline, it’s existed in some form for thousands of years. Writings from ancient Greek, Persian, Egyptian and Chinese civilisations all detail methods of treating ailments that included assisted movement, massage and exercise. The development and diversification of physiotherapy as a medical field, however, escalated significantly in the 19th century and continues to the present day. 

For a concise but comprehensive look at these periods of major growth in the discipline’s history, you need only read on. The following article will take you on a quick dive covering the most significant developments in the field.

The Rise of Physiotherapy (1800s-1900s)

It’s generally agreed upon that the beginnings of physiotherapy as we know it today can be traced back to the Swedish poet Per Henrik Ling. Now recognized as the originator of Swedish massage, Ling founded the Royal Central Gymnastics Institute in the city of Stockholm in 1813. 

As an organisation, the institute was focused on training gymnastic instructors in sequences of exercises meant to promote better health and physical well-being. Courses and treatments offered by the institute at the time included calisthenic exercises and various massage techniques. The institute can thus be thought of as the first cohesive and organised group of trained physical therapists to exist. The years following would see the proliferation of more physical therapy organisations not just in Sweden, but around the world—including Great Britain, New Zealand, and even the United States.

Through the early 20th century, a number of cataclysmic international events increased the demand for physical therapists to treat and rehabilitate the ill and injured. One of these, naturally, was the aftermath of the First World War, when physiotherapy was a ubiquitously prescribed treatment for wounded and disabled soldiers. The spread of physiotherapy as a medical practice in these years led to treatment-related breakthroughs and other improvements, in concert with growing knowledge and greater developments in other medical and surgical fields. 

By the time the Second World War broke out in 1939, physical therapy was practised regularly in hospitals around the world. The war years would see the founding of dedicated, specialised physical therapy clinics to facilitate the treatment and rehabilitation of injured soldiers. These patients were thought to need additional care and monitoring following their official hospital discharges. The establishment of institutions to provide this outpatient care would feed physiotherapy’s popularity significantly, as well as set the stage for other major developments in the field as a whole.

Physiotherapy’s Evolution and Diversification (1950s-present)

It was in the late 1950s that physiotherapists began to migrate their practice out of hospitals and open dedicated clinics and treatment institutions of their own. Over the following decades, physiotherapy would begin to diversify increasingly as a profession, branching out into multiple distinct sub-specialisations that targeted different types of malady or regions of the body. 

Some of these burgeoning specialisations included skin therapy, neurological therapy, orthopaedic physiotherapy, and cardiopulmonary physiotherapy. As these branches of physiotherapy came to be recognized and embraced by health authorities the world over, the discipline as a whole came to be more well-regarded and widely sought after.

Another major shift in the field of physiotherapy in recent decades came with the rise of computer use in medical science in the 1980s. The popularisation of this then-revolutionary technology paved the way for the introduction of new devices like electrical stimulators and ultrasound machines into generalised physiotherapy practice. With such devices now available, a multiplicity of new and more efficacious treatments could then be developed.

Physiotherapy today, as previously mentioned, continues to be a widely popular area in the field of healthcare. Physiotherapeutic techniques are employed for a broad array of conditions and illnesses and may be utilised either alongside or in replacement of other medical treatments like medication and surgery. Some conditions for which physiotherapy is considered a go-to treatment procedure include muscle strain, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, repetitive strain injury, fibromyalgia, and many more. 

Contemporary physiotherapy tends to revolve around the development of highly individualised treatment plans to address a specific patient’s needs in a focused manner. Common objectives physiotherapists work toward most frequently, however, include the following:

  • Pain relief
  • Improved range of motion
  • Enhanced strength, flexibility, and/or endurance
  • Improved ability to function independently

Throughout its long history, physiotherapy has evolved in numerous and extremely substantial ways. At every pass, however, the goal of the discipline has always been to find ways to improve quality of life for injured, ill or disabled patients. Thus, if you or someone you know need medical attention for a recent injury or other condition, don’t hesitate to visit a podiatry clinic Singapore residents trust and seek the required treatment. 

Written by Trix Mejia
Illustrations by Chua Jia Qi


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